Throughout life, our bodies have different needs. In particular, as we age certain nutrients are paramount in order to maintain good health. This is why malnutrition becomes a more pertinent health concern later in life, regardless of an individual’s weight.

Malnutrition’s role in aging

“As people age, the risk of malnutrition increases significantly,” Lynell Ross, a Certified Health and Wellness Coach, Nutritionist, and the founder of Zivadream tells Considerable.

More specifically, up to one out of every two older adults are at risk of becoming malnourished, according to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.

It’s important to keep in mind that whether someone is underweight or overweight, there can be malnutrition.

This is why, Ross says, good nutrition becomes increasingly important, “particularly in aging individuals that suffer from chronic diseases or conditions, such as dementia.”

According to Dr. Kelly Bay, a certified dietitian nutritionist, nutrition specialist, doctor of chiropractic and health coach, older individuals are at a particularly high risk of malnutrition because of specific co-morbidities, oral issues (such as compromised chewing/swallowing), appetite challenges and natural decline in senses such as smell and taste.

Malnutrition typically occurs as a result of unhealthy, nutrient negative diets that are higher in refined carbohydrates/sugar and inflammatory fats, Bay tells Considerable. “Older individuals also experience changes in body composition and energy expenditure, leading to different nutritional needs than younger individuals,” explains the dietitian.

It’s important to keep in mind that whether someone is underweight or overweight, there can be malnutrition.

“Someone who has extra weight actually [can be] lacking in certain nutrients,” Jane Schwartz, a registered dietician and nutritionist told MD Magazine in an interview. “Because a diet can be very high in processed foods, and lacking in fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and certain things like that, they can have laboratory numbers and disease states that indicate a state of malnutrition.”

The symptoms of malnutrition

With this being said, malnutrition can manifest itself in a number of ways in older individuals. According to Ross, the following symptoms are significant symptoms of malnutrition that should be acknowledged and discussed with a medical professional:

  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Depression or cognitive impairment (which may indicate a B12 deficiency)
  • Inexplicable or unintended weight loss
  • Tiredness and fatigue (lethargy) 
  • General weakness and loss of strength
  • Weakened immune system
“Often times malnutrition has to get severe before noticeable symptoms arise and many chronic illnesses can in turn, be influenced by nutritional status.”
Dr. Kelly Bay
Certified dietitian nutritionist

Along with these symptoms, Bay says that mood changes, difficulty recovering from illness, pale/cold skin, fatigue, inadequate wound healing, digestive issues, hair loss, and dry skin may also be malnutrition red flags. Cognitive impairment and depression can be a result of B12 deficiency alone.

“Often times malnutrition has to get severe before noticeable symptoms arise and many chronic illnesses can in turn, be influenced by nutritional status,” says Bay.

In general, she says, the most common nutrient deficiencies in older individuals are vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, folate, B12, B6, vitamin E and vitamin C.

How malnutrition can be prevented

There are ways to prevent malnutrition during the aging process. Bay recommends making sure dental issues and chewing or swallowing problems are properly addressed, having regular nutritional screenings, maintaining a healthy weight, and implementing regular physical activity.

“Making an effort to eat a nutrient dense diet is key,” Bay says.

“Cooking with fresh herbs can be useful in addressing taste and smell decline with this population, while focusing on plant based foods and lean protein will ensure sufficient nutrient, protein and fiber requirements.”

Tangentially, Ross advises that if you’re caring for a loved one who’s at risk for malnutrition getting them a subscription-based meal service could help immensely. “Not only does this ensure that they are getting a consistent stream of health and nutritious meals, but it also promotes cognitive thinking and motor skills as they must prepare the meals themselves,” she tells Considerable.

This would also help an individual avoid excess sugar, processed foods and fast foods that can increase chances of missing out on optimal nutrient status.

“It is also important to note that avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and addressing any GI issues that may contribute to malabsorption are important to address,” Bay advises.

Further, taking a good quality multivitamin and multi-mineral, along with eating smaller meals throughout the day may also aid in appetite challenges that older individuals experience.

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